The (Austrian) Economist as Public Intellectual

RothbardTurgotNicholas Kristof writes in the Sunday New York Times about the decline of the public intellectual. “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.” As Kristof rightly points out, in many academic disciplines, career success comes exclusively from publications in peer-reviewed journals. Writing and speaking for a popular  audience, trying to influence journalists or policymakers, and even using blogs and social media are seen as distractions at best, pandering at worst. I once had a colleague who, as a junior professor, got an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal. “There goes his shot at tenure!” was the snarky reply from the senior faculty.

Of course, the great scholars of the Austrian tradition never took this position. Carl Menger started his career as a financial journalist and, after achieving international fame with his Principles of Economics, took a position as tutor to the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince. Böhm-Bawerk was not only an eminent scholar but a vigorous participant in public debates and three-time minister of finance in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mises spent most of his career as chief economist for the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, where he spent his days advising businessmen and government officials, his nights and weekends producing his seminal academic articles and books. Murray Rothbard, besides contributing original  theoretical and empirical works in economic theory, the philosophy of science, political economy, and US economic history, was a prolific writer of popular articles and books, a frequent speaker, and a tireless organizer for popular as well as scholarly causes.

The Mises Institute has, since its founding in 1982, pursued a three-way mission emphasizing academic research, teaching, and public outreach. Our faculty include top established and emerging scholars in Austrian economics who are working to develop, integrate, and advance the great tradition established by Menger. They publish in our Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and other peer-reviewed journals, present and discuss their work at our Austrian Economics Research Conference and other professional meetings, and otherwise keep the Austrian tradition healthy and strong. But our scholars also contribute to our Mises Daily series, they speak at our outreach conferences, and otherwise work to make the lessons of the Austrian school accessible and relevant to the problems and issues of our day. You can also find their work on our blog, on the Mises View, and wherever else good ideas are discussed. Scholarship is central to our mission, but so is relevance. Perhaps Kristof’s lament will spur other academics to do likewise and embrace the role of public intellectual.


  1. Well done- so true. I have long lamented the simplistic “bumper sticker” rhetoric that gains so much appeal in our elections (as example). There are many reasons we could identify as to cause and, perhaps, if we are honest, some of us share some responsibility in these. If one can identify some optimism- I believe a significant portion will come by way of experiencing the results of the present paradigm. I have some hope that people will continue to make that connection and realize that solutions will not be borne by the same (policies) that we have in evidence before us.

    Participation by writing commentary in local papers, calling in to radio talk shows, and bringing the relevant subjects to conversation in our personal associations is also key. It is, indeed, the thought process that will manifest realization and active work by all. It is somewhat of a challenge to inspire the recognition if we are steeped in the lexicon that is exchanged amongst the more literate on (subject), but one can work toward bringing the level of the vernacular about. Frankly- there are a great many people who are not as passionate as those of us who share these pages- and they do not have to be. Many people do possess some themes of “common sense”, and will naturally find appeal to what the more versed among us think about all of the time (I know I am not alone here!).

    That brings me to a “reminder” of sorts- how often have I been humbled by an (explanation) that found origin with an individual I may have not considered capable of grasping some concept I had somewhat arrogantly assumed! At the end of our journey here, we may find that some of these encounters were most important. Thanks for the article….

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